Political aspirations trump religious beliefs in Iran’s unnatural feud with Azerbaijan

Shia Muslims constitute the majority of the population in Iran and Azerbaijan. And yet, the two countries have a problematic relationship, which has only worsened with the escalation of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Speaking to IranWire, an Armenian politician said Iran should be more actively involved in the current conflict to protect its interests, while a regional expert warns that the war threatens to destabilize Iran’s internal environment.

A war has broken out in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave between Armenia and Azerbaijan, killing hundreds near the Iranian border. The enclave is officially part of Azerbaijan, but it is ruled by ethnic Armenians supported by Armenia. Given Iran’s growing concerns about the Azerbaijani government’s ambitions in the region, the war threatens to cause further damage to an already fragile relationship between Iran and Azerbaijan. As a result, the Iranian government has been inclined to side with Armenia, despite it being a Christian country and Azerbaijan being predominantly Shia Muslim.

Vahram Ter-Matevosyan, an associate professor at the American University of Armenia, says that while it may seem strange that Shia Iran is siding with Christian Armenia, it’s nothing new. In this conflict, political concerns prevail over religion.

“Iran does not want Turkey to be involved in the crisis,” Ter-Matevosyan told IranWire. “However, Turkey is increasingly supportive of Azerbaijan, and the crisis is becoming a geopolitical concern for Iran in its growing rivalry with Turkey. It’s a rivalry that dates back to when the Persian Empire and the Ottoman Empire fought each other and it’s still there today.

Ter-Matevosyan also says Iran is concerned that Turkey has helped bring in often radical Syrian mercenaries to fight Armenia, and has called for a ceasefire. In addition, he said, Iran is also angry with Azerbaijan for its ties to Israel: the country supplies weapons, including drones, to Azerbaijan.

“All these concerns outweigh the religious issue and therefore Iran mainly supports Armenia,” Ter-Matevosyan says.

From the perspective of Brenda Shaffer, a professor at the US Naval Postgraduate School, the dispute is not so much about Azerbaijan’s relationship with Israel. “Some write that Tehran does not support Azerbaijan because of Baku’s close ties to Israel, but that is not chronologically correct,” Shaffer said in an email to IranWire.

“Tehran clearly articulated its policy as early as December 1991, when the USSR was collapsing. Iran perceived that when the USSR collapsed, two walls fell – not only between Eastern and Western Europe, but between the former Soviet Muslim republics and Iran. Iranian media and officials have openly stated that they fear nationalism will cross the border from the new republics of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan and affect their own Azerbaijani and Turkmen populations. This policy was formulated five years before Azerbaijan and Israel established close cooperation.

Politician: Iran must act

Armenia is wedged between Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran and Georgia. Her protector is supposed to be Russia, with whom she has a defense pact. However, in recent years Russia has sold modern weapons to Azerbaijan, which has challenged the alliance and made it even more critical for Armenia to impress Iran.

“Armenia has fought against terrorists and Turkish-controlled Azerbaijani forces. It maintains a balance in the region,” Sos Avetisyan, a member of Armenia’s parliament from the My Step Alliance party, told IranWire.

“Iran is a very important ally. They understand very well that terrorists can move south, but they have been very balanced on this conflict,” says Avetisyan. “They don’t move, and usually only act when they feel under control. threatens. I don’t think they feel that now. But they should be worried.

If Iran is not worried, it is certainly aware. Last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said: “We must be careful that the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan does not become a regional war,” according to a BBC report published on October 7.

According to Ter-Matevosyan, Iran has done little to resolve the crisis and he is not sure what the Armenian government is doing to get Iranian help.

However, it might be difficult for Armenia to persuade Iranian officials that Iran and Armenia have similar concerns, he said.

“Iran fears that if Azerbaijan wins the southern parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, the area will be highly militarized and Azerbaijan will encircle a northern part of Iran,” says Ter-Matevosyan, adding that some Azerbaijani nationalists consider that the area is theirs.

In a clear example, he says that some nationalists want to rename Azerbaijan “North Azerbaijan”, which implies that there is a South Azerbaijan in Iran. According to Brenda Shaffer, Iran is simply not ready to sacrifice safety or economic security for a religious issue.

“Although he formally declares himself a supporter of oppressed Muslims, he never supports Muslims in conflicts that require Tehran [to take] a concrete risk or a sacrifice of economic or security resources. Look, for example, at Iran’s excellent relations with China. Despite the oppression and mass incarceration of Muslim Uyghurs and Beijing’s attempt to eradicate their Islamic practices, Iran continues to deepen its cooperation with China,” Shaffer said.

“Moreover, Iran has excellent relations with Russia, despite Moscow killing thousands of Chechen Muslims, including at the height of the Chechen wars. In this context, one must see Iran’s relations with Armenia. Geopolitical interests bring Tehran to Armenia’s side: Armenia is close to Russia and helps Iran evade sanctions, while Azerbaijan is close to Turkey and Israel and strictly abides by sanctions against Iran,” she says and points out that Iran also benefits from the sale of natural products. gas to Armenia.

Problems are nothing new

Armenia and Azerbaijan clashed over Nagorno-Karabakh for many years and fought a bloody war after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The rocky relationship between Iran and Azerbaijan also has a history. Ter-Matevosyan says Azerbaijan has been angry with Iran’s economic deals with Armenia for many years and Azerbaijani voices accuse Iran of valuing its financial concerns more than his religious concerns.

Iran quickly recognized Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991, but when the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia began in the years that followed, Iran threatened Azerbaijan with military intervention. after provocative statements from Baku.

Since then, relations between Iran and Azerbaijan have sometimes improved and deteriorated at others. In 2007, Azerbaijan, for example, accused Iranian state television of trying to manipulate its people.

In 2012, Iran temporarily withdrew its ambassador to Azerbaijan after growing concerns over Azerbaijani relations with Israel and after protests erupted against Iran in Baku, as reported by Reuters. People took to the streets of Baku after Iranian figures slammed Azerbaijan for its decision to host the Eurovision Song Contest, calling it a ‘gay parade’, and branding the Azerbaijani government as anti-Islamic .

According to Shaffer, Azerbaijan and Iran are unlikely to suddenly become friends.

“Azerbaijan tries to maintain polite relations with Iran, but nearly 30 years of Iranian support for Armenia cannot simply be wiped off the ledger. Additionally, Iran has operated domestically in Azerbaijan against the secular nature of the government and school system, including supporting terrorist elements promoting radical Islam. In addition, Azerbaijan respects US sanctions against Iran and also maintains close strategic cooperation with Israel,” Shaffer adds.

She also points out that Iran is increasingly concerned about anti-government protests. Among these were several demonstrations organized by the Azerbaijani minority in Iran.

“However, with the emergence of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in July this year and its continuation in late September, many ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran were infuriated by Tehran’s support for Armenia and [are] come out to protest. This creates additional pressure on the regime and a threat to its continuity,” she said.

Ruth R. Culp